As someone with a weakness for political discussion, I am often frustrated by people who have a very confused vocabulary for talking about the range of political views from left to right. The classic error is conservatives who refer to President Obama as a “radical leftist”. But such sloppy rhetoric is nearly as common from liberals, and perhaps even more common among eccentrics who like to style themselves as off the conventional spectrum altogether.
I will grant that language for describing the political spectrum is necessarily a bit mushy, in large part because the spectrum itself is a blunt tool for organizing categories of political thought. One dimension is of course insufficient to describe the universe of possible political stances. But the left-right axis has its uses and turns up in discussions all of the time, so if we are going to use it we should get as much clarity in it as we can.
In this post I don't want dig into defining the the difference between left and right. That is a big subject which many people have examined thoughtfully and at length. I have a collection of links to my favorite pieces doing that (including one of my own).
Instead, I want to look at the language for talking about where in the range one might place a person's philosophy. What makes the difference between moderates and radicals? Between the hard right and the far right? Between liberals and leftists? These distinctions have an inherent slipperiness, but people I regard as sophisticated use them in a pretty consistent way, and I'd like to explain it so I can refer to it in other discussions. I'll reference specific examples from American politics, but I think this language is applicable enough in other contexts as well.
Moderates are people committed to one side or the other, but not perfectly consistently, such that they support some policies from the other side. In principle, politicians tend to be moderates (though at the moment in Congress, the Republican Party has driven out a lot of its moderates, and moderates look a little thin in the Democratic Party ranks too). A liberal who opposes gun control or a conservative who opposes the war on drugs may be described as a moderate. These days, conservatives further to the right like to describe moderate conservatives as RINOs (“Republicans in name only”), while liberals further to the left call moderate liberals “Blue Dog Democrats”. Occasionally one may also hear “liberal Republican” and “conservative Democrat”, to refer to people's place on the mini-spectrum within the party.
The wing, as in “the ‘left wing’ of the Democratic Party”, are people who are fully committed to the philosophy of their axis and believe that our existing institutions are the right place to focus their political energies. They want to win elections so that government can implement their policies without needing to compromise significantly with the other side. On the right, these folks are often referred to as “movement conservatives”, on the left, these folks are generally just called “liberals”.
The hard left and right believe in participating in conventional political institutions (like elections, government, and the two major parties) but also believe in the importance of working to change the institutions themselves if their philosophy is to be fully enacted. Someone on the hard right may want a dramatic re-interpretation of the First Amendment, or even a new Constitutional Amendment, to recognize that the United States is a Christian nation. Someone on the hard left may want a Constitutional Amendment to counter the Citizens United decision on free speech and corporate campaign donations, or to dismantle most of the military-industrial complex. On the right, this includes the “Tea Party”, “religious right”, some “libertarians” (I'll come back to libertarians), and some “movement conservatives”. On the left, these folks are generally called “progressives”.
Radicals believe that it is almost pointless to engage within conventional political institutions, that the only meaningful political action is revolutionary change to the institutions themselves. This reflects the of the word “radical”, which literally means “striking at the root”. Someone on the radical left may want to dismantle capitalism. Someone on the radical right may want to dismantle the Federal government's power over the States and dramatically strengthen the independence of county government. On the left, these folks are generally called “leftists” or “The Left” as distinguished from “liberals”. On the right, these folks may be “Christian Dominionists”, some “libertarians”, “Patriots” or “Three Percenters”, and so forth.
The extremists of the far left and right are radicals whose philosophies are eccentric enough that the hard left and right completely reject them. A progressive may be sympathetic to a radical leftist who thinks that we should put an end to the legal fiction of limited liability corporations, allowing only worker-owned collectives ... but will be horrified by the far left Maoist who says that we should murder the plutocrats in their beds and declare a dictatorship of the proletariat. A person in the Christian Right may be sympathetic to the radical Dominionist who says that only Christians should be permitted to hold public office ... but will be horrified by the Klansman who says that we should put Jews, Muslims, and atheists to death. This departure from the ordinary discourses of liberalism and conservatism means that it can be hard to place these folks on the left/right axis.
More on libertarians, since it always come up.
Libertarians commonly argue that they don't belong on the left-right axis at all. Many of them hold that libertarianism is a peer to liberalism and conservatism, and others protest the common presumption that libertarianism is a species of conservatism by pointing to the left-libertarian tradition. These folks have a point, though I think that generally libertarians protest too much ... a question which is more complex than I want to get into in this post. But I think my mentions of libertarians above are fair in that many folks who call themselves “libertarians” can be identified unmistakably as a species of conservatives if you look at their positions closely.
Update: I have Mad magazine covering this question back in 1970. I'd say “just for fun” but it's surprisingly timely.